India’s premier domestic cricket tournament, the Ranji Trophy, climaxes this week. But with the big stars absent and fans preferring shorter, sharper matches, the stands have been largely empty.
At a recent match between Delhi and Andhra Pradesh at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium in the Indian capital, there were about the same number of people in the stands — around 20 — as on the pitch.
On the final day of the four this swelled to 150, but only because it was a special occasion — the swansong of former India opener Gautam Gambhir.
Part of the problem is that once the likes of India’s superstar captain Virat Kohli make it big, the packed international timetable of the modern game means they have no time for the Ranji — reducing its pulling power for spectators.
People in cricket-mad India also no longer have much passion for the four-day Ranji games — named after a maharaja who played for England in the 1890s — preferring the excitement of one-day games and the razzmatazz of Twenty20.
“(The) attention span of today’s youngsters is less, they want action all the time,” former India great Sunil Gavaskar, who used to electrify packed Ranji Trophy crowds back in the 1970s and 80s, told AFP.
“(But) most importantly it’s the absence of the international stars which does not help draw the crowds. The international schedule being what it is, the players are tied up with that,” he said.
It doesn’t help that the facilities are not very inviting. Unlike during international games, the toilets are seldom cleaned and refreshments are hard to come by.
One of the few fans at the Feroz Shah Kotla grounds is AP Bhalla, a grey-haired regular in the stands who remembers people “thronging” to games in decades gone by.
“Especially during the Delhi-Mumbai games the stands were filled, with their city rivalry being legendary,” the retired doctor told AFP.
“This one-day and T20 cricket has really taken the zip out of the longer format. Who cares for domestic four-day games? In the 1970s and 80s even inter-university games attracted crowds like in ODIs now,” he added.
Ranji was and remains the breeding ground for India’s future stars. India’s latest addition to the senior team, Prithvi Shaw, is a case in point.
The teenager scored heavily for Mumbai before shining in India’s Under-19 World Cup triumph in 2018. He has also played for the Delhi Daredevils in the big-bucks Indian Premier League T20 extravaganza.
Veteran sports journalist Vijay Lokapally remembers how stars used to go the extra mile to play in Ranji matches.
“Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Virender Sehwag were always available for their state teams when not playing for India,” he said.
“I am an eyewitness to them travelling in buses and trains with domestic teams even during their stardom.”
But this is no longer the case.
Instead of two or three Test tours and home series that the Indian team played 30 years ago, the current side has a gruelling schedule of around 80 days of on-field action besides travel and practice games.
Kohli, for example, made his list-A debut in 2006 but has played little or no domestic cricket after leading India to the Under-19 World Cup title and his subsequent selection for the Indian national team in 2008.
Kohli was named in Delhi’s probable squad for the 2018-19 Ranji season but could not even attend the preparatory camp due to his international commitments.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is trying its best to pull in crowds in the game’s longer format against competition from the glitz, pumping music and cheerleaders of T20.
“We have written to all state associations to do their best to market the game,” BCCI general manager of cricket operations Saba Karim told AFP.
“They need to engage and reach out to schools and colleges so that we have more numbers on the ground.”